The Blessed Reformation Doctrine of Total Depravity

Rev. Moore is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.

One of the doctrines of Scripture that became very important to the fathers of the Reformation was the doctrine that man was totally depraved. This was a doctrine that was not very popular in the days of our Reformation fathers, and it is certainly not popular in our day. And yet this doctrine we must maintain as essential to our assurance of salvation as the children of God. Besides, one cannot maintain the glory of God’s name if he does not also understand this doctrine. If we are to glorify God as we ought as the children of God, and if we are to have any assurance of salvation, we must maintain the Scripture’s truth of total depravity.

Today there is less and less preaching that concerns itself with the devastating nature of our sin, and more and more emphasis placed upon the welfare of man. The needs of man are emphasized, while the glory of God takes a back seat. This ought not to be; for where there is a lack of instruction concerning the natural state of man, there is also a lack of assurance of salvation. Further, only where and when the total depravity of man is confessed and where man lives his life in the light of this confession shall God be magnified as He by sovereign grace saves us.

The doctrine of man’s depravity was preserved for our churches in the Canons of Dordt as they were formulated in 1618-19 over against the heresy of Arminianism. In the Canons we find a defense of the faith over against those that would deny the natural depravity of man. The Canons rightly maintained that man is totally depraved and that this has been the teaching of Christ in the church of the ages. Any qualifications set upon this doctrine to weaken its teaching are shown to be merely a human invention. Scripture maintains that man in himself is dead in sin and utterly dependent upon God’s grace for salvation.

The church, on the basis of Scripture, has always maintained that God’s will is sovereign, and likewise that man’s salvation is uniquely and entirely in the hand of God. In the 1600s, as is also true today in so much of the church world, it was taught that man can merit before God, that salvation is dependent upon the choice of man for salvation, and that God’s will to save is conditioned by man’s will. The Scriptures do not so instruct us, but rather teach that God’s will is always sovereign. For instance, we read in Acts 15:18, “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” And the psalmist teaches us, “But our God is in the heavens: He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3). We therefore believe that God is sovereign and omnipotent, He accomplishes with perfection all that He purposes. Now because God is not man, but is the infinitely perfect God, we must confess that there are no mistakes in God’s will or His purpose, and that He accomplishes all that He purposes.

This certainly is true of God’s will concerning the moral rational creature, whether man or angel. God teaches us, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15). And further, in the 18th verse of this same chapter, the Spirit teaches, “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” We are given to understand therefore that it is God, ultimately, that determines the salvation of His elect and the damnation of the wicked, and does so according to His sovereign good pleasure. But to understand fully how this can be we must understand that by nature we are all worthy of damnation, for there is no good in us, apart from His work of salvation. If we were to maintain that man is not totally depraved, that there is some good in natural man whereby he can seek God in his own strength, so that in part our salvation is dependent upon our work, we must then deny God’s sovereignty and take some of God’s glory to ourselves. To deny the total depravity of man will lead to a denial of the absolute sovereignty of God, and will in the end rob Him of all glory.

Yet today, when God is proclaimed to be sovereign in the work of salvation in Christ Jesus, this preaching is despised by the unregenerate. As Christ is preached to be the only ground of our salvation by the will of the living God, there is come to pass the saying of Peter. It is said of Christ in I Peter 2:8 that He is become “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient; whereunto also they were appointed.” Understand that natural man despises this doctrine, because it means that our wills are completely bound to Satan and death as the fruit of the fall. It means that we are so depraved that we cannot obtain salvation apart from God’s work in Christ.

Man naturally hates the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. He finds that it leaves him no room for boasting, it denies all worthiness on man’s part. The fruit is that many rebel against this truth and often do so by denying our own depravity. Natural man despises the doctrine of double predestination, he cannot tolerate the God who instructs, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (Is. 6:9-10). This hatred for the doctrine of the sovereignty of God causes man to deny his dependence upon God for salvation and to deny his own natural and total depravity. He thus exalts himself and explains that he must decide whether to be saved or not, he must make the move before Christ’s sacrifice can have effect. If we follow this path we will take from God His glory and will lose all assurance of salvation. How necessary for us that we jealously guard the truth of the total depravity of man.

As churches we maintain the truth of the total depravity of man over against errors with respect to the doctrine of man. This has really been the case from the beginning of time. The lie concerning man’s natural ability became the occasion for the fall. Satan tempted Adam and Eve, saying that they could be as God. Satan taught that they could determine what was good and evil, and Adam and Eve fell. From that moment on, natural man denied the fruit of the fall, that he died. Again and again man exalted himself above God, making images of God, serving gods of his own imagination. The Pharisees taught that they had the ability to save themselves by their own works’ righteousness, and denied their own natural depravity.

The Pelagians continued this evil denial of the judgment of God upon the sinner and denied that man was so depraved that he could bring forth no good work. They did this by teaching that man is not totally depraved as a fruit of the fall, that man is not dead in sin, but merely sick. Man could still by an exercise of his own will seek the balm of healing grace and be instrumental in his own salvation. They taught that God had prepared salvation for all men, and offers that salvation to all men, and now it is up to man what he will do. This same error was brought to the foreground again by the Arminians, and is prevalent in the church world today, as salvation is repeatedly conditioned upon the will of man. However, this is and always has been the attempt of Satan to destroy the glory of God and to bring to destruction all of mankind.

Over against this lie of darkness, the Scriptures teach that man by his own sin is become totally depraved. This is the point that Paul makes when he teaches us that before we were quickened we were dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1). The fruit of the fall is that man died spiritually and became totally corrupt, so that the imaginations of his thoughts were only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). Thus we may read that legally death passed upon all men with the fall of Adam (Rom. 5:12), and spiritually we are conceived and born in sin and iniquity (Ps. 51:5).

Thus we must have nothing to do with the distinction sometimes made between total and absolute depravity, which is an attempt to deny this doctrine. That we are depraved means that we are dead, and as Scripture so clearly points out, this means that by nature we are dead and can bring forth no good thing. Romans 3: 10-12 characterizes fallen man as follows: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” So we should be reminded of two things. First, God’s Word clearly teaches that man is totally depraved, and we must not come to understand man’s natural state by what we feel is just or right, but by what God declares to be true. God says that man is dead in sin, and with the prophet we exclaim, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).

Secondly, we must then see apparently good deeds on the part of natural man as just that, “apparently” good deeds, one kind of lust suppressing another, for “there is none righteous, no, not one.” “There is none that doeth good, no, not one.” When man uses all things in the service of man and in the service of sin, his works cannot be considered good in the eyes of God. The world of natural man stands in enmity against God and hates His cause and uses all things to advance the cause of darkness and his own sinful desires.

To maintain this truth serves the glory of God’s name and gives assurance to God’s children of the salvation that is certainly theirs. This doctrine that many find so hard is exactly a doctrine that is God glorifying and gives to us peace. Let us explain. If one denies man’s depravity, then he must teach that man’s salvation is conditioned upon man’s response, and election is conditioned upon that response of man, it is determined by a foreknowing by God of what man would do. Therefore it is man that in the end determines whether he is saved or not. Deny man’s total depravity, and one must teach that atonement is universal, and that all men have the ability and the opportunity to take hold of a salvation that is offered to all. Thus atonement is questionable, and dependent again upon man. Deny total depravity, and the grace of God and the work of the Spirit are taught to be resistible by man. Man can therefore destroy the work of God or prevent the work of God from running its course.

Understand, then, there is absolutely no comfort for God’s children if salvation is dependent even in the smallest part upon us. Man may then boast, but that boast will not stand in the day of judgment. For we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Deny total depravity, and we must teach that we are subject to the falling away from grace. Then all comfort is removed and we have no peace.

On the other hand, to hold fast the teaching of Scripture concerning man’s natural depravity assures that God shall receive all glory in our salvation and we shall have the exceeding great comfort of our confession that we are saved by grace alone. For when this doctrine is proclaimed we come to know ourselves to be undone sinners, there is no room for any pride in ourselves, all boasting is made impossible. This is the work of God by His Word and Spirit in us whereby we are led in all humility to trust alone in God for our salvation—a salvation that is to be found only in the obedient death of Jesus our Savior on the cross.

We then are filled with rejoicing as the righteousness of Christ is declared to be our righteousness, and we are assured of salvation, for it is of God’s grace alone. Hence, when God’s children enjoy the blessings of salvation, all the glory is rendered unto God.